Does Suffering Make Sense? {Lent Book Series}

Today’s Lent Book Series offering is a guest review from the patient and gifted writer Gina Vozenilek.  Gina wrote about Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal for the 2014 Lent Book Series, and way back she was highlighted in The Catholic Post in the  “Meet a Reader” feature.  


Easter is still a good way off. Today the sky is colorless and cold and the wind rocks the naked limbs of the trees. I’m glad to be inside sitting in my cozy chair, feet up by the fire. I sip coffee and read about the opposite of my present contentment: suffering.

Who wants to even think about suffering, let alone read a whole book about it?

Does Suffering Make Sense? by Russell Shaw observes how programmed we are as a society to avoid suffering in its many forms: a bad diagnosis, a tragic accident, financial hardship, natural disaster, social injustice, the pain of loss, the fear of dying, the shame of guilt, betrayals and hurts and disappointments as plentiful as the stars in the sky.

It’s not that Shaw is in favor of suffering for its own sake. (He would agree that cancer is bad and to be avoided, if possible, and he would not recommend I quit my comfy chair and go stand outside in the cold).

But Shaw notes that we expend tremendous effort to insulate ourselves and our loved ones from the suffering that inevitably finds us, at one time or another, in one form or another.

Shaw’s book invites us rather to rethink suffering and its redemptive power. He asks, “What use can I make of suffering to become a better person, which for me as a Christian means being more like Christ?”

Drawing on Scripture, papal encyclicals, and other theological writings, Shaw crafts an engrossing discussion of what suffering can offer us if instead of fleeing it—which is ultimately futile—we strive to embrace it as Jesus embraced his Passion.

When we accept suffering—when we bear it patiently, courageously, and lovingly—we suffer with Christ; in doing so, we complete his suffering in his complete body, which is the Church, and we receive in our lives and extend into the lives of others the redeeming value of his suffering.

In a way, Shaw is explaining what it means to offer it up (not that he explicitly uses this phrase). I always wondered what that really meant, and how to do it. This book bolsters understanding of the theological concepts behind that age-old phrase.

I learned a lot more from reading Does Suffering Make Sense? Shaw’s analysis of the betrayals of Judas and Peter is especially interesting. Both men recoiled at the notion that Jesus’ mission should include suffering and humiliating death—with the implication that these would also mark the path of anyone who wanted to follow Jesus.

Ultimately Peter’s faith sustained him even when he could not fully comprehend the meaning of Jesus’ suffering. Although his courage failed him and he faltered in his vocation, his abiding loyalty to the person of Jesus moved him to tears of true contrition.

But Judas lost all faith. “All that was left open to him,” writes Shaw, “was grief’s perversion: despair.”

Does Suffering Make Sense? examines the problems of sin and suffering in the wider world and our own lives. Shaw underscores our individual responsibility to respond actively, not passively, to the suffering we encounter.

He writes, “A very active response is required of us: the effort to cultivate and sustain the disposition of joining our suffering to the suffering of Jesus.” By doing so perhaps we can begin to understand better what it means to enter into Christ’s Passion, a timely reflection as Holy Week approaches.

So who wants to read a whole book about suffering? Does Suffering Make Sense? will appeal to those who seek some deep Lenten reading, the kind you undertake prayerfully with a pencil or a highlighter. It is substantial without being weighty, and although it is about suffering, it is an uplifting and empowering book that will give you new ways to think about the crosses in your own life.


*Gina Pribaz Vozenilek, her husband John, and their four children are members of St. Jude Parish in Peoria. An essayist, her work has won national awards and has appeared in Notre Dame Magazine, Brain, Child, Literal Latte, the Tampa Review, Body and Soul: Narratives of Healing from Ars Medica, and elsewhere.

Gina is the Communications Director for the Jack Pribaz Foundation, a nonprofit group started in 2012 on behalf of her nephew Jack, 5, who is one of the first known cases of a rare genetic epilepsy called KCNQ2 encephalopathy. “Jack’s Army” raises funds for research and helps families connect to find support and information about this emerging condition. By sharing Jack’s story, the Foundation has helped locate more than 90 patients and their families around the globe. Read more